Crisis grows for Yeltsin as Chechens repel onslaught

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The Independent Online
Chechen forces repulsed the Russian onslaught on Grozny for a third day yesterday as evidence mounted of an overwhelming political crisis for President Boris Yeltsin.

The assault on the capital collapsed after Chechens, armed with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades, beat off attempts to seize the presidency, symbol of the mostly Muslim republic's three-year drive for independence. The secessionist green, red and white flag was still flying atop the palace yesterday.

As night fell, Chechen soldiers attempted to encircle and wipe out three groups of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles in the east and west of Grozny.

But Russian artillery and snipers poured fire on them and aircraft roared over the blacked- out city, bombing in the west. The pale orange of flares periodically lit up the sky.

Twenty to thirty armoured vehicles were in a defensive circle near the House of Culture, about 15 near the tram station, and about 10 at the railway station. The city centre is devastated, with five-storey apartment buildings ripped apart, trees shreddedand the main square black from fire and explosions.

Hundreds of Chechen soldiers patrolled openly, hunting down Russian snipers left behind by their retreating army. Soldiers, armed with assault rifles, grenades and the all-important anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, could be seen in every neighbourhood. Chechen soldiers typically hunt tanks in groups of about 30, armed with 10 RPGs.

The depth and ferocity of resistance appeared to surprise Russian authorities, whose claims of almost total victory on Sunday were replaced by more sober accounts of a tactical redeployment and admission yesterday that "several dozen'' armoured vehicles had been lost in the assault. The Russian army launched a combined tank and air assault on New Year's Eve, intending to make short work of paramilitary forces loyal to Dzhokhar Dudayev. But Mr Dudayev is still directing operations in a suburban bunker.

Mr Yeltsin's failure to end the revolt with minimum loss of life has cost him the sympathy of most liberal politicians and important sections of the armed forces. Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said Moscow's political elite was anticipating a coup: "It would be a great surprise to it if this doesn't happen."

According to a survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, 63 per cent of Russians oppose the war and 65 per cent have no trust in Mr Yeltsin against 13 per cent who trust him. The poll was taken on 24 December, since when rising casualties and the impression of a campaign gone awry are likely to have increased his unpopularity.

Senator Robert Dole, Republican leader of the new US Congress, said: "This is a no-win situation for Yeltsin, and it is an indication that democracy may be on the brink of failure."

Russian blunders,page 8

Leading article, page 13